Sasha's new DJ set-up doesn't
include a turntable, CD player, or mixer.
in extreme digital.
By Daphne Carr
Photos by Amy Chace
At first, it’s a bit off-putting to
see one of the world’s most famous DJs standing in front
of 2,500 mad fans with only a laptop and a few digital controllers.
At 2 a.m., when Sasha first takes the booth at crobar New
York, he lets out a burbling blast of static with low beats
below, and the crowd, which had been milling about in a half-trance
wait, begins to bounce. When the music reaches its deafening
peak, the lights go down and the Kryogenifex jets go off.
Sasha, who’d been having a nervous chat with the sound
guy, looks relieved. Not a glitch.
On Friday, December 3, progressive forefather Sasha began
his half-year monthly residency, called Fundacion, at Chelsea
superclub crobar. His method of DJ-ing at the party follows
the trend set by his long-awaited summer DJ mix, Involver
(Global Underground), which features 11 tracks produced using
new Ableton Live software. In Sasha’s world, the days
of turntables are numbered.
After their seminal Northern Exposure mix, UK-based Sasha
and his musical partner John Digweed jumped the pond for their
high-profile monthly residency at the now-infamous Chelsea
nightclub Twilo (in the building that is now Spirit). Three
years have passed since the end of that club and their reign
in it, and people still talk of those epic sets as if their
ears were still ringing (as if a Phazon system would do that!).
In that time, New York City and the club world alike have
undergone many changes. Sasha’s return residency is
a symbol of the West Side nightclubbing district’s strong
revitalization from the city’s dark Giuliani days. Likewise,
Sasha returns to the crystal clear sound of crobar’s
Phazon sound system (legend has it that he’d leave Twilo’s
booth mid-set to hear a new record on its Phazon) is taken
up a step by his newest challenge – a fully digital
FX Sans Decks
Sasha switched to a fully digital Ableton Live set-up while
touring Asia, but its American debut at crobar marks a change
in the future of digital DJ-ing. As he related to DJ Times
in June, Sasha’s been working with Ableton Live 3 through
most of 2004, tweaking his set-up and testing controllers
before debuting them in front of a club crowd. During the
recording of Involver, he tested tracks for crowds using Live
as a third option to make loops and add samples to his set.
The Evolution UC-33 (top)
and X Session controllers work great, for now.
A fan of the Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD
turntables, Sasha was a little reluctant to give up the tactical
environment of a DJ-friendly controller for something as,
well, lame as a computer mouse. His PR team reports that he’s
been working with a variety of M-Audio devices, settling on
the Evolution UC-33 USB controller and the XSession USB Midi
Control Surface with crossfader, but is still insistent that
a more traditional, analog-feeling device must be made. He
is currently beta-testing a custom controller designed with
Maven software, and plans to debut it during Fundacion.
Dave Hill, Jr., Ableton’s Public Media & Artist
Relations Manager, said that Sasha is not alone in his desire
for a better controller. “This spring at NAMM, there
will be a bunch of controllers coming out, but there need
to be dozens before DJs can really find the ones that work
for them. It’s hard when you replace hardware with software,
because you have more musical options, but you loose the physical.
I know a lot of DJs are concerned with how going digital will
affect their live show.”
And, he said, the DJ market has not been a forerunner with
the technology. “I hear plenty about jazz guys in Europe
using foot switches to trigger laptops. DJs aren’t innovative
like that; they’re more conservative. But I think that
the trade is somewhat obsolete, with something like Live and
now it’s a whole new world of sound.”
With that in mind, Sasha’s totally digital turn serves
two main points: one primarily creative, the other completely
professional. The Ableton Live DJ setup allows Sasha to mix,
cut, time-stretch and pitch-shift individual tracks in real
time, a powerful set of tools both in-studio and onstage.
The only problem with this, he told DJ Times, is that “committing
to stuff is one of the difficult things.” Sasha might
be suffering from browsing-anxiety; the thought that behind
every clip might be another good track, another interesting
sample. In that respect DJ-ing is becoming even more like
The other result of using Ableton is that his mix –
a product of his creativity and spontaneity, a true improvisation
– will be unique to the evening, which guarantees freshness
in a world where Internet-released albums go from hot to overplayed
before the month is through.
It used to be that you’d look up from your dancing and
see a DJ strained over his tables, hands furious, records
being pulled with well-practiced agility. But at crobar, Sasha
gave the crowd a set that sounded equally entrancing but offered
little physical evidence of its creation. In a field full
of top-tier technique and white-label elitism, Sasha came
to New York with a new mantra: Work smarter, not harder.